Maharaj builds on Tahir’s spin legacy

Imran Tahir changed South Africa’s attitude towards spin bowling and its place in the game. Keshav Maharaj took up the baton and made history with his hat-trick in St Lucia.

As Keshav Maharaj took the wicket of Joshua da Silva in the second Test against the West Indies at the Daren Sammy Stadium in St Lucia, with a huge helping hand from Wiaan Mulder at leg-slip, he completed the Proteas’ first Test cricket hat-trick in a match in which every South African was eligible to play for the side.

The KwaZulu-Natal native wheeled away in a giddy celebration, incorporating a knee slide and a salute to the skies, before being tackled by Kagiso Rabada. “I almost didn’t know what to do with myself,” Maharaj said from St Lucia, where South Africa sealed a 2-0 series triumph. “The next thing I was being manhandled by KG and Lungi [Ngidi]. Between those two, I felt like a toy being tossed about by a pair of male lions.”

Maharaj has done a lot of celebrating in the past few months. He ended the domestic season on a high with the Dolphins, winning the T20 Challenge hosted at Kingsmead owing to Covid-19 restrictions. On top of that, Maharaj led the Dolphins to the last four-day final of the franchise era, his wickets, runs and captaincy proving hugely inspirational to a franchise on the rise.

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Though he didn’t play in the final, with the national squad assembling on the same weekend, he followed the action closely as the Dolphins romped to a famous victory, with his spin twin Prenelan Subrayen the star of the final. “I was thrilled for him. A lot of hard work has gone into his game for years, and he is now getting the rewards,” said Maharaj.

Indeed, Subrayen received his maiden call-up to the Test side as a result of his domestic form. “I’ve watched him go through the ranks, and he is like family. Watching him improve every year, I knew it was a matter of time before he got recognition,” said Maharaj in big-brotherly fashion.

The one thing cultivated in the Dolphins culture, which several members of the national management set-up have noticed, is a gracious joy in the success of others, even at the initial expense of individual ambition. The whole comes before the parts.

‘A dance I can’t repeat’

Sarel Erwee has yet to play a game for the Proteas, but his attitude is noted as first-rate. The same applied for Keegan Petersen, before he got his chance. So, as Maharaj was claiming his hat-trick, Subrayen was to the side, ecstatic for his cricketing big brother.

“He went crazy! He was as chuffed as if he had taken the wickets himself,” said Erwee. “There was a dance that I can’t repeat, and a bit of shouting. It was awesome to see, and is obviously a reflection of how close they are.”

Maharaj went further, explaining that the spinners’ association has strong roots, and extends beyond the borders of KwaZulu-Natal. “It can be a lonely game as a spinner. So we need to stick together. You could say it is something that was encouraged by Imran Tahir. I was lucky enough to play a few years with Immy Bhai, and his encouragement and words of advice were invaluable.”

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Tahir has been a major influence on the way South African cricket views and uses spin, and his impact is now paving the way for the next generation. “I think you can see his influence, in the way that spin is used. Even in the way that batters are approaching it,” said Maharaj.

In Durban, where the traditionally pacy Kingsmead track has slowed and become a spinning haven, the emphasis has switched to a spin-heavy attack. Maharaj and Subrayen are often supplemented by Senuran Muthusamy, and even now retired Rob Frylinck was known to switch from medium pace to the occasional off-spin.

“It has become a great simulation for sub-continental conditions, and it has played into our hands. We’ve seen the difference in approach, and I guess it has also shown up-and-coming spinners that there is a place in the game for them,” said Maharaj.

A game of patience

The importance of spin globally cannot be overemphasised, and South Africa is finally catching up. In the Twenty20 squad in the Caribbean – which Maharaj couldn’t break into – Tabraiz Shamsi is joined by Bjorn Fortuin and George Linde. Maharaj has designs on that squad, too.

“I had a long chat with the coaches in the winter and I reiterated my ambition to play across all formats. I got an opportunity in the one-day series against Pakistan, and I was very pleased about that. The key is to keep knocking on the door and show versatility,” he said. 

His nous, subtle change of pace and angle, and consistency of length have made him indispensable at the Dolphins. While he plays the patience game with the red ball, Maharaj has become an attacking weapon in limited-overs cricket. He relishes batsmen coming at him, because that creates more opportunities for wickets to fall.

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The pied piper, Tahir, showed that it is just as possible for spin to be as big a threat as the traditional Proteas strength of speed and intimidation. Those were on full display in the Test series, with Rabada, Ngidi and Anrich Nortje all stepping up strongly.

“That’s as well as we’ve bowled as a unit in a long time,” said Maharaj with a smile. “KG bowled as well as he did in my debut series against Australia, back in 2018. He was fast, in people’s faces and just mean. Lungi had great control, and Ana cranked up the pace and just had this controlled aggression. It’s a real privilege to bowl behind that, but I had to be very patient just to get the ball in my hand.”

A shift in thinking

The five-match T20 series, that’s evenly poised at 2-2, in the Caribbean that ends on 3 July is followed by a tour of Ireland. With the T20 World Cup on the horizon, the new-look team is clarifying roles and responsibilities. Within that framework, captain Temba Bavuma knows that the likes of Shamsi have to be central to the plan. Shamsi has risen to No. 1 bowler in the world T20 rankings, unthinkable in the South African context just a few years ago. But the thinking has evolved, transformed.

“There’s definitely been a change to the approach, even with the bat,” said Maharaj. The power hitters who favour pace on the ball have been replaced by deflectors, players capable of manipulating the ball into gaps: paddling, sweeping, dabbing and nurdling their way through the middle overs.

The South African bowling plans have been altered, too. It is now the Proteas pace battery, but with dollops of wrist-spin and mystery. There is Tahir to thank for that, but it is also a direct consequence of the Indian Premier League, and the number of captains and leaders who have gone over and now better understand the importance of spin to the rhythm of a game.

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The best teams in the T20 world often pick their spinners and then slot in the fast bowlers with enough of a repertoire to warrant a place in the line-up. Given the modern batsman, such as the riotous Rishabh Pant who can casually reverse-pull deliveries at 140km/h, speed is now a liability.

Maharaj knows that the T20 World Cup will come too soon for his ambitions, but there is time for other dreams. The Men’s Cricket World Cup 2023 in India is getting ever closer and his calming influence in every team he plays for is a vital trait under pressure.

It is there, at the business end, that trophies are won and lost. As a matter of course, Maharaj takes the new ball for the Dolphins in T20 cricket, daring agitated openers to come at him. He tosses the ball up, and rolls the proverbial dice. More often than not, he comes out tops.

That is why, less quietly than ever, the Maharaj knuckle is knocking on opportunity’s door, waiting to be let into the T20 international light. Until then, he will watch and encourage his touring party as they wrap up the series in the Caribbean, then head to Ireland for the next stop of the extended road trip. And he may yet place a cold drink in the Mulder mitt for the considerable  part he played in a South African spinner rewriting the history books.

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